Spotlight On… Harry’s Ocean Bar and Grill!
Tucked away from the hustle and the bustle of Beach Ave, on the northern end of the strip, lay one of Cape May’s most stalwart and often-overlooked gems: the Montreal Beach Resort, a 70-room hotel, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. And tucked into the corner of the Montreal is Harry’s Ocean Bar and Grill, right on the beach at Madison Avenue.
We sat down at lunchtime on a beautiful Monday in August, mere feet from Cape May’s famed beaches and the glittering Atlantic beyond.
“You know what? I will do a Summer Catch,” Richie replied.
“I’ll take one, too,” Jonathan added.
We didn’t want to be left out, so we joined in, taking advantage of some of the last kegs of Summer Catch in town.
“When in Rome,” Richie said.
The Montreal is a family business, now in its third generation and celebrating its 51st year this year. Named for Jonathan’s grandfather Harry, the restaurant was renovated as part of their celebration of the hotel’s Golden Anniversary last year.
Harry Hirsch, a Holocaust survivor, came to the States after WWII and moved to Vineland. A Jewish community organization hooked him up with one of the many chicken farms in the area, and, as that business developed, he sold chickens and eggs to many of the restaurants in Wildwood and Cape May.
So, smartly, he snatched it up.
Even though Harry had no hotel experience at all, “he said, ‘Well. Anyone can run a hotel. Why can’t I?’” Jonathan says, laughing.
And here we are, half a century later, sitting in an ocean breeze, listening to families enjoy their day on the beach.
The three pints of Summer Catch arrived, and “Cheers!” were clinked around the table.
There are eighteen taps throughout the restaurant, and CMBC has the lion’s share, on five of them.
“It shows what people want,” Jonathan says.
He tends to keep the selections to local breweries, mentioning some other guys in Cape May and Cumberland Counties.
“That’s the trend,” he says. “People are always asking our servers, ‘What local beers do you have?’”
Nonetheless, for the past three years, our flagship Cape May IPA has been his best-selling beer.
We perused Harry’s gigantic menu. And we mean gigantic. Not that it’s overwhelmingly extensive, it’s just that the menu itself is about two feet tall. We had to fully extend our arm to get the entire menu in frame on the Samsung.
“So what’s good here?” we asked.
Jonathan pointed us toward the fish tacos, the clam chowder, —
“We won the Chili-Chowder Cook-Off four years in a row,” Jonathan says, proudly —
but the menu has a little bit of everything, including a full mussels menu with five sauces, new for this season.
“I have to get the fish tacos,” Richie says. “Best in Cape May.”
Richie lives on fish tacos.
We settled on the crab macaroni and cheese, and we weren’t going to pass up the chance to chow down on a trio of Cape May Salts from Harry’s appetizer menu.
“Have you guys ever had smoked trout?” Jonathan asked.
“Negative,” Richie responded.
“You guys are in for a treat,” Jonathan said.
In season, the kitchen closes at 10, with the rest of the bar closing around 11:30 or midnight.
Jonathan characterizes Harry’s as everyone’s first stop before a night on the town. Being relatively far north, that makes sense — people stop at Harry’s, then continue their night at some of the other stops in town.
“Everyone always asks, ‘Why don’t you stay open to two o’clock? Do a late-night menu?’” Jonathan says. “I say, ‘You know what? We’re one of the only bars that does breakfast, lunch, and dinner.’”
For the most part, Harry’s has a laid-back feel. It’s perfect for a first date or for a family dinner. It’s not so formal that you’d feel out-of-place in your flip flops, but it’s a far cry from some of the other party bars in town.
“We’re not in the heart of it,” Jonathan says, “but we have our own unique, fun vibe that doesn’t need to go on until two o’clock in the morning.
“Whatever experience you want to have at Harry’s, you can have it.”
“This is a smoked trout dip,” he says. “It’s kind of like a whitefish salad, but with smoked trout. It has garlic and sour cream and a bunch of different things all mixed into it. It’s one of those things that either people love or hate.
“As someone who grew up eating gefilte fish,” he jokes, “this is right up my alley. I put this on my bagel in the morning.”
Absolutely delicious. The dip was smoky and garlicky, with just enough heat from the horseradish cream. It was perfectly paired with toasted slices of baguette, and it was delicious with Summer Catch.
“Anytime someone comes in, I ask them if they want to try something a little different,” he says. “And the people that do like it, come back for it over and over.”
The oysters were served with a mignonette sauce and a Bloody Mary cocktail sauce — both excellent additions to the Cape May Salts.
Attached to Harry’s is The Wine Cellar, a fully-stocked liquor store catering to the needs of the hotel guests and anyone else who chooses to stop by. Originally called The Montreal Liquor Store, the shop had been part of the building for about thirty years, but during a focused rebranding about ten years ago, they concentrated on giving it a new identity.
“This was kind of at the beginning of the craft beer movement,” Jonathan tells us. “We didn’t want it to just be a convenience store that has liquor.”
They pimped the place out with a bunch of wine box labels on the walls, creating a mosaic of labels, giving the establishment more validity.
“Instead of looking like a convenience store with lots of white walls,” Jonathan says, “it looks like a wine cellar.”
They focused on unique wines and local beers, curating the store to cater to a more discriminating taste.
“It’s not what you’re going to find at a large, discount liquor store,” he says.
Jonathan admits that they have a significant number of people coming in asking specifically for CMBC beers. They have a local beer section, but we’re taking most of the business.
“People want to bring back wine from their trips,” Jonathan says. “People want to bring back beer from their trips.”
“It’s like any other souvenir, really,” Richie adds.
And the Montreal helps their patrons do exactly that. They have a “Brew for Two” package, including two monogrammed Harry’s glassware, a $20 voucher for Harry’s or a Deluxe Continental Breakfast each morning in the off-season, and a $10 gift certificate to CMBC. (See link for details.)
The entrees arrived, and we knew we were going to have trouble getting through the entire crab mac and cheese. This thing is an appetizer, mind you, but it’s absolutely gigantic.
“It’s a meal and an appetizer in one,” Jonathan says.
Crafted with jumbo lump crabmeat, elbow pasta, and cheddar, Monterey jack, gruyere, and fontina cheeses, the dish was sweetened with just enough chopped onions. Richie’s fish tacos are beer battered — and Harry’s is smart enough to use our flagship IPA.
“Same for the Fish and Chips,” Jonathan tells us. “The fish tacos are a beer-battered cod.”
Harry’s has live entertainment seven days a week throughout the season, starting at four pm, usually upstairs at the rooftop bar. Saturdays, they have their Saturday Concert Series.
“Most of our entertainment is solo or duos,” he says, “but Saturdays we have some larger bands.”
In the off-season, the live entertainment drops to four days a week in September. The live music coincides with happy hour, with $2 off all draft and bottled beers and wines by-the-glass.
“We have Crush Wednesdays — $5 Orange Crushes,” Jonathan says.
Richie perked up immediately.
And the Orange Crushes at Harry’s are no joke. They’re an unbelievable 20% of Harry’s bar business. They’ve gone through a ton of oranges thus far this season. Or, more accurately, a half-ton.
“I’m currently keeping track of how many oranges we’ve gone through,” Jonathan says, “and we’re up to about 125 cases thus far.”
Doing some quick Googling and nimble math — that’s nearly 1,000 lbs of oranges. Or a half-ton. And we’re only three-quarters through the season.
We finished our meals and went to inspect the rooftop bar.
“The rooftop bar was a huge aspect of the renovation,” Jonathan says. “We’re the only place in town that has a rooftop bar.”
And this thing is pretty sweet. With four taps upstairs — two of which are dedicated to local brews — the rooftop bar boasts gorgeous views of the ocean and is connected to the balconies on the second floor. Pro tip: should you decide to stay at the Montreal on your next trip down, try to finagle either room 219 or 220.
In all, it seems that Harry’s longevity can be attributed to one thing: the love the Hirsch family has for it. Speaking to Jonathan, you can tell that it’s not only the hotel that’s handed down from generation to generation but pride in the establishment, as well. They’ve taken care of Harry’s legacy, and it shows.
And as Jonathan says, “Keep calm and Harry on.”